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On Memories of Violence, Part 2: Chinese textbooks and questions about the Korean War 60 years later

A 1950 Chinese propaganda poster showing a caricature of Douglas MacArthur committing wartime atrocities as a US plane bombs a Chinese factory in the background. Used with permission from the Stefan Landsberger/Chinese Posters collection.

Today is the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, a war which six decades later is still surrounded in controversy. For decades, the Party line in the PRC was the same one that is alive and well and living in Pyongyang today: The American Imperialists, with the help of their lackeys in the right-wing militarist government in Seoul, invaded the North.  As Tania Branigan reports from Dandong for The Guardian, it’s a belief that dies hard, especially because many Chinese living along the PRC/DPRK border personally witnessed bombing raids by American planes during the war.

But times are changing.  For example, yesterday the Global Times English-language edition published an op-ed calling for PRC archives to be opened up for further study of the Korean War and Chinese involvement in the conflict.  Chinese academia is not (quite) as bound and gagged by the Party as it once was, and many scholars accept the idea that it was the North who commenced aggressions against the South.*

But as an educator, I am less concerned with what is being said at think tank lunch tables and more interested in what is being taught in the classroom.  Past generations were told that the Americans/South Koreans invaded the North.  More recent textbooks have softened their tone somewhat, while nevertheless still adhering to the PRC’s “Patriotic Education” guidelines.

I went online to the People’s Education Press and checked out their most recent high school history textbook.**  The chapter on the Korean War narrowly skirts the question of who started the conflict in favor of another tactic of CCP historical obscurantism — slapping the ill-defined (and ill-definable) label of ‘internal affair’ all over the account.  In this version, the US — and its “allies” — interfered in the “internal affair” of the Korean civil war and used the turmoil as a pretext to launch an invasion of the north and, ultimately, China.

Resist America, Support Korea, Protect the Homeland and Defend the Country

Not long after the founding of New China, the country faced the threat of external invasion.  In the summer of 1950 the Korean Civil War erupted.***  The United States rushed to use military force to interfere in Korean internal matters, forming an American dominated “Allied Army” to invade Korea.  They crossed the 38th Parallel and took the flames of war right up to China’s border.  At the same time, the US 7th Pacific Fleet entered the Taiwan Straits and so interfering in China’s internal affairs.  The situation in Korea was grave and imperiled China’s security and safety.

Chinese propaganda poster from 1951. "It's glorious to take part, to oppose America, support Korea, protect the home and the nation." Used with permission from the Stefan Landsberger/Chinese Posters collection

The textbook also tells students that when the US invaders pushed northward to the Yalu River, they began bombing Chinese civilian targets on the north side of the border, only to be finally beaten back by the heroic efforts of the Chinese volunteers and their Korean allies under the leadership of Peng Dehuai.****

What’s fascinating about the narrative in this textbook is that it manages to make the US seem like the principal aggressor while tiptoeing around the actions of Kim Il-sung and without mentioning the encouragement of Joseph Stalin and the USSR.   Now I’m not giving the US a pass here, especially because the actions and words of one Douglas MacArthur (the patron saint of crazy-ass insubordinate generals) certainly would lead anyone unfamiliar with the US chain of command to the conclusion the American government had every intention of taking out the fledgling regime in Beijing — by nuclear means if necessary.  And it’s pretty well documented that the US launched bombing raids against targets inside the PRC which led to civilian casualties.  All that said, the Korean war was a conflict of great complexity, a complexity which – not surprisingly — recent history textbooks in the PRC do a nice job of papering over with the pablum of “Patriotic Education.”

Faced with such a dire situation, the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea requested that the Chinese government send troops to their aid.  On October 10, 1950, in order to resist America, support Korea, and to protect and defend the country, a Chinese volunteer army under the leadership of Peng Dehuai entered Korea.  Standing shoulder to shoulder, the Chinese volunteers and the Korean army and people beat back the American invaders, pushing them past the 38th Parallel.  After which, a stalemate ensued between China/Korea and the American invaders.  Due to fierce resistance by the Chinese and Koreans, in the summer of 1953 the United States had no choice but to sign the armistice.  With their defeat of the American army and victory in the War to Resist America and Support Korea, the Chinese Volunteer Army disbanded triumphantly.

It’s interesting that China sees the war as a victory, and having cheered the US soccer team to a 1-1 draw with England

Propaganda poster from 1951, "Long live the victory of the Korean People's Army and the Chinese People's Volunteers Army!" Used with permission from the Stefan Landsberger/Chinese Propaganda Posters collection

last week, I can sympathize.  China defended its borders and was able to clean up the mess created by Kim Il-sung.  The initial surprise attack by Peng Dehuai’s forces was also pretty spectacular, taking the American troops unaware and nearly routing the allied forces off of the Korean peninsula before settling on a return to the pre-war status quo and the division of the two Koreas along the 38th Parallel.

But it was all done at great cost. South Korea lost 137,000 soldiers, North Korea lost 215,000.  There were over 36,000 American casualties and conservative estimates number Chinese casualties at 400,000 killed and another 400,000 wounded.  That’s not to mention the enormous toll on the lives and livelihoods of Korean civilians.   As many as 2.5 million Korean civilians were killed, wounded, or went missing as a result of the war and a shocking number of atrocities and massacres were carried out by both sides.

It was needless, senseless, brutal and there is more than enough blame to go around.  It’s okay to teach history in such a way that the ugliness of all sides is represented alongside acts of heroism.  As I wrote on Monday, replacing Manichean narratives with ones that encourage students to confront history in all of its nuance and mess doesn’t make students less patriotic, it makes them better global citizens.  Castrating history so it seems less threatening in the present, or using history in support of political disputes in the here and now is a really crappy way to educate future generations, and it doesn’t matter whether the textbooks are published in Beijing, Pyongyang, or Texas.


* The cynic in me also notes that South Korean companies are major investors in Chinese industry, and the ROK is one of China’s largest trade partners in Asia while the DPRK has started to reach whole new levels of crazy.  Seriously, if you read that “Kim Jong-il had purchased the body of Michael Jackson and was re-animating it for his own personal sexual predilections,” tell me you wouldn’t have to think about it for half a second before deciding whether it might be true or not…. The most recent example was the coach of the DPRK World Cup team suggesting he maintained contact with Kim Jong-il during matches through an invisible mobile communication device.

**It’s the second volume of the textbook I discussed in Monday’s post about the 110th anniversary of the Boxer Rebellion.  In some ways this post is a kind of sequel to that one.

***Love the use of the passive voice here.  It’s a common grammatical strategy in the PRC.  For example, “After the Japanese were defeated in World War II, the CCP then moved to consolidate its position…”  Yeah, lucky break there against Japan, wonder how that happened.

****Only five years after “winning” the war, Peng would be excommunicated by an enraged Mao for having the temerity to suggest that the Great Leap Forward wasn’t going as planned (the whole mass starvation bit).   Some history wags suggest that the Chairman never forgave Peng for allowing Mao’s eldest (acknowledged and surviving) son Mao Anying to be killed in action during a US air strike.  Additional post-script regarding Mao’s son, a Chinese friend of mine suggested — and in his defense, he suggested it over drinks — that Mao Anying being killed was “the best thing to ever happen to China” and that if Anying had survived, Mao would have felt compelled to hand over power to his kid. “We would be just like North Korea.”  A lot of BIG what-ifs in there, but it’s an interesting theory.

10 Comments on On Memories of Violence, Part 2: Chinese textbooks and questions about the Korean War 60 years later

  1. i also wonder if the gaping lacuna where the USSR is concerned might also be somewhat related to a desire to deemphasize russia’s historical presence in east asian geopolitics, to make it seem as if china was (and is, and is to come) the major east asian power, and not playing the initially peripheral, reactive role in the korean war that it, in fact, did.

  2. The “Mao Anying dying was the best thing to happen to China” is actually quite common. But maybe that’s just in Shanghai.

  3. I wonder what will the Chinese government do now that they are releasing some facts about who actually started the war. How are they going change the history that is stored in the brains of those taught with these creative history, and what will this people think when they find out the history they were taught in school was creative.

  4. Serve the People // June 26, 2010 at 12:16 pm //

    The 400,000 of Chinese soldiers killed and 400,000 wounded figures were Western propaganda during the cold war to portrait CCP as a monster that cares nothing about soldiers’ lives. Historians rejected these figures a long time ago. During the Korean conflict, the troop strength of the Chinese Volunteers never exceeded 1 million. If the casualty figure was 800,000, the Chinese would not be able to put up any fight, let along holding half of the peninsula.

    The real legacy of the Korean war in China is the overwhelming popular support for the communist party enjoyed that the war generated. This support would last for decades to this day. First time since the Opium War, people had faith in themselves and in their nation. Now people look back to the fifties as a time of great sacrifice and tremendous achievement, the first golden period of the People’s Republic.

  5. Ah, plus ça change…and so on and so forth.

  6. note: according to chinese source (i found at wikipedia) it was about 150+400 only(?) but with number of ‘Volunteers’ “accumulated to 2.97 million”

  7. I’m pretty confident in the figures I used, but I think the key word is “only.” My feeling about these kind of arguments is that after a certain point, arguing about how many hundreds of thousands of people died in a particular event obscures the larger issue — that anytime we can talk about casualties at these levels it’s a human tragedy of immense scale.

    For the record, I feel the same way when Japanese right wing nut jobs try to lower the number of casualties in the Nanjing Massacre to “only” 100,000 or “only” 50,000 by calling accounts with higher death totals “Chinese propaganda.”

  8. sigh… I know you’re going to write me off as damned crazy commie but I’d like to note that just on face of economic size, there is no way SK surpasses Japan as either the largest direct investor or trade partner of the PRC as published by any noted econ. indicator.

    +++ “For the record, I feel the same way when Japanese right wing nut jobs try to lower the number of casualties in the Nanjing Massacre to “only” 100,000 or “only” 50,000 by calling accounts with higher death totals “Chinese propaganda.”

    While I have no opinion on the causalities in the war, what you’ve say is a damned cheap shot and you know it.

  9. A couple of things,

    1)I did see that the Chinese government has released an official figure of 180,000 casualties during the war. I’ll take Serve the People’s comment into account, and if the West is saying 400,000 and China is saying 180,000 then the number probably is somewhere in the middle though I’m beginning to think that 250,000-300,000 sounds about right.

    2) It’s interesting people focused on this number more than anything else, the casualty number for China (as for the other countries) was meant to show how brutal the war was and how so many brave men and women gave their lives for what they thought (or were told) was right. Such is war. It was meant to be sympathetic not derogatory, though having seen Serve the People’s comments elsewhere, I’m not surprised such a distinction slipped by unnoticed.

    3) For Justin a) I said ROK was a MAJOR trading partner not the LARGEST trading partner in Asia, I totally agree that Japan is still well ahead by almost any measure. b) Was it a cheap shot? I don’t know. The point is when you have two sides, both with skin in the fight and both with contemporary political exigencies to consider, who are arguing over casualty figures, is it unreasonable to assume the answer lies somewhere between the cited high and the cited low? I don’t think so. For the record, we do a history study trip to Nanjing twice a year, each time we visit the Memorial, and the figure I usually give the students in the pre-visit lecture is “somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000.” But….

    Here’s the thing. As I said before…does it matter? When we argue about 10s of thousands of lives cut short by the brutality of war, can’t we just agree that no matter what the final tally, any event that leads to such an immense loss of life and suffering is evidence sufficient of war’s brutality?

  10. I too would warmly welcome any opening of the Chinese archives, but on the issue of the Korean War it is already possible to learn great many things from now declassified Russian documents:

    One document provides the following nugget:

    Mao Zedong added further that the unification of Korea by peaceful means is not possible, solely military means are required to unify Korea. As regards the Americans, there is no need to be afraid of them. The Americans will not enter a third world war for such a small territory.

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